Abstract: The Hustler's Ethic: Alternative Routes to Business Success in Black Chicago, 1916-1940

Will Cooley


This paper addresses alternative routes to success through entrepreneurship in economically marginalized communities. The migration of African Americans to northern cities in the first half of the twentieth century opened up new vistas of opportunity but also presented many of the same racial restrictions faced in the South. Faced with racism that prevented entry into many mainstream businesses, blacks invented alternate routes to advancement to circumvent these limits. Efforts to "move on up" involved the shadowy worlds of gambling and storefront preaching, revealing black aspirations for individual success through the reinvention of notions of "respectability" within the community. Although many of these occupations were considered dubious or outright illegal when compared to conventional methods of American success, in the black community they were regularly afforded degrees of legitimacy because of the common understandings of racism, discrimination and an admiration for the hustler ethic.